victory worth the wait
Bierley in Paris
Monday November 4, 2002
The Russian fulfils his potential with a crushing victory over
Marat Safin joined the illustrious trio of Andre Agassi, Pete
Sampras and Boris Becker when he won his second Paris Indoor
Open title here at Bercy yesterday, defeating the Australian
world No1 Lleyton Hewitt 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.
It was the 22-year-old Russian's first title for 15 months,
and a final too far for Hewitt, 21, whose recurring virus problems
have undoubtedly affected his play since he was beaten in the
US Open semi- final by Agassi in September.
The last time Hewitt lost a five-set match in straight sets
was in the 2001 French Open when he was beaten by Spain's Juan
Carlos Ferrero, and nobody had taken a set off him to love since
the Italian Open two years ago. But at least his efforts over
the past week appear to have ensured that he will retain his
position as the world's leading player at the end of the season.
The year's final tournament, the Tennis Masters Cup, begins
in Shanghai a week tomorrow with Hewitt holding a substantial
points lead over Agassi, his only rival for the top spot. And
if Hewitt gets to the final in China, Agassi cannot overtake
him, even if he beats him. "I think Lleyton will be the
world No1, and he deserves to be," said Safin.
Before yesterday the Russian's year had been one of missed chances,
none more so than in Melbourne last January when he lost to
Sweden's Thomas Johansson in the Australian Open final. Had
he won there Safin, the US Open champion in 2000, might well
have gone on to dominate the game, but his confidence deserted
him and, try as he might, he could not add to his previous 10
career titles. That is, until yesterday.
Autumn in Paris, when the boulevards are thick with fallen leaves,
appears to bring out the best in Safin, for this was his third
final at the Palais Omnisport in the past four years. And Australians
are good for him too. Having lost to Agassi in 1999, he defeated
Melbourne's Mark Philippoussis the next year, although that
victory needed a tie-breaker in the fifth set.
Becker, with three Paris Open Indoor titles, remains top of
the list, with Safin now snuggling up with Agassi and Sampras,
all with two. Perhaps, like that trio, Safin will win Wimbledon
one day. Nothing is beyond the compass of this young man's power
and talent. The one doubt is his temperament, although on this
occasion he was calmness personified.
"You know Lleyton will fight and fight and fight until
you break. If you show him that you are broken, the match is
finished," said Safin, who will return to this stadium
at the end of the month when Russia play France in the Davis
Cup final. The only differences will be the surface, which will
be clay, and the level of crowd support against him.
Safin's is a high-risk game, because he rarely goes for percentage
shots. This may change as the years pass, but for the moment
he is very much dependent on confidence, and when he arrived
in Paris it was not terribly high.
"I was frustrated. I felt I was almost there, but finally
I have done it. It was a big present from Lleyton."
If this was an acknowledgement that Hewitt was some way short
of his best, it was a view that Hewitt confirmed. "My expectations
were not that high this week, and if I hadn't been playing for
No1 the chances are I probably would not have come. I had to
try and get some runs on the board, which obviously gives me
a little more confidence going into Shanghai."
Not that it was a gimme for Safin. The two had met six times
previously and were tied at 3-3. The Russian has been striving
for greater variation in his serve but, when he squandered a
break in the opening set to allow Hewitt back from 3-1 down,
it appeared the old inconsistencies were resurfacing. "I
had a lot of chances to get back into the match but when you
give Marat a start he's very tough to peg back," said Hewitt,
referring to the loss of that first set.
Thereafter Hewitt's resistance was little more than cosmetic.
"I think the second set was just perfect for me,"
said Safin, who appears likely to finish the year as the world
No3, having dropped out of the top 10 last year. "Sometimes
you have great days, some days are a little more difficult.
But I'm enjoying my sport and I'm happy to be here in Paris
instead of cleaning the streets in Moscow. It's wonderful to
win again, especially at the end of the season."
Cedric Pioline announced his retirement from the sport at 33
after he and Gustavo Kuerten lost the doubles final. Pioline
reached two grand slam finals, losing to Pete Sampras in the
US Open in 1993 and again at Wimbledon in 1997. He was also
part of two French Davis Cup triumphs.
November 04, 2002
From Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent in Paris
Safin finds his best form to put Hewitt on the run.
IT WILL be a lot different the next time Marat Safin takes to
the twisting staircases of the Palais Omnisports de Bercy. Yesterday,
he was the star of the show. In 26 daysï¿½ time, he will be the
sworn enemy and the teeth of the French will be bared to him.
Safin claimed his first tournament title in 13 months when he
drove ever-widening holes through the famed defences of Lleyton
Hewitt, the Wimbledon champion, to win the ninth and final Masters
Series event of the year, the BNP Paribas-sponsored event here,
in a manner that recalled his sustained brilliance at the US
Open in 2000.
How the French devoured his every move, for there is something
about this enigmatic Cossack that finds favour with the most
discerning palate. He knows, though, that they will be happy
to spit him out when Russia face their beloved team in the final
of the Davis Cup in the last weekend of November.
That is how it goes in sport and Safin is the first to acknowledge
that while this was a wonderful day for him personally, there
will be a good deal more on the line when he crosses swords
with Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean.
The 22-year-old Muscovite was in the kind of mood this week
that makes him such an impossible person to peg. He has filled
the rubbish bins of the most revered courts of the world with
bent rackets, venting his angst against all and sundry, but
here ï¿½ for reasons that probably escape him ï¿½ Safin was a model
of calm assurance. Only Nicolas Escude, the conqueror of Tim
Henman, took a set from him in five matches.
For someone of Safinï¿½s ability to go so long without a championship
asks inevitable questions about him wasting the gifts with which
God endowed him. From first until this exceptional end, he had
struggled, losing in the final of the Australian Open to Thomas
Johansson, suckered in straight sets in the semi-finals at Roland
Garros by Juan Carlos Ferrero, tied in knots at Wimbledon by
Olivier Rochus, of Belgium, on the first Wednesday, and out
on his feet after a five-set marathon against Nicolas Kiefer
in the first round of the US Open to be easy fodder for Gustavo
Kuerten in the second.
Since then, Safin has hardly had a moment to breathe, flying
from Tashkent to Moscow, from Hong Kong to Lyons (via Moscow
again), on to Madrid and finally Paris to collect the points
that would assure him of another long-haul flight, to Shanghai
for the Tennis Masters Cup. His 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 unscrambling of
the best scrambler in the world yesterday not only placed the
icing on his tour cake this year but would have been music to
the ears of Andre Agassi.
The complex mathematics of the qualifying process ï¿½ illustrated
by the fact that Henman missed out on the trip by four points
across a year in which tens of thousands are on offer ï¿½ means
that Hewitt will succeed in winning the race for the second
successive year if he reaches the final in Shanghai. Should
the Australian stumble along the way, Agassi still has a chance
of overhauling him, but it would need him to hold off challenges
from five of the best eight players in the world this year.
And Safin is going to be in the field, preparing to wreak his
own havoc on proceedings. It is hard to believe that he can
play like this for two weeks on the trot. ï¿½I donï¿½t think this
could be much better,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½If you show Hewitt that you
are broken, the match is finished. Even in the third set, at
5-3 love-40, three match points, he played some great tennis.
ï¿½Of course, I want to win Shanghai, I want all the money, all
the points, be happy and also win the Davis Cup. I think I can
do it. My tennis is 90 per cent risk, I open the court, go down
the line. If you donï¿½t feel well, you are not confident, you
miss by this much (holding thumb and forefinger a millimetre
apart) and it takes weeks to get that confidence back.ï¿½
The final yesterday turned on the 15-minute second game of the
second set. Safin had edged the first on a tie-break, having
seen a 4-1 lead whittled away by defiance at its most Hewitt-like,
and broke the Australianï¿½s opening service game in the second.
Safin saw off three break points ï¿½ one with an extraordinary
reflex forehand played just above the net cord ï¿½ and raced through
to claim the first love set against the world No 1 in 2? years.
Hewitt was never quite fully there. He has been troubled by
debilitating viral conditions for the best part of two years,
which makes you wonder what he might have achieved on his full
physical rations. ï¿½I just wanted to come here and try to get
some runs on the board,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½It is a big thrill simply
to get through to the final. Iï¿½ve got other things on my mind
at the moment.ï¿½
It is about holding on through a week in China for which he
will know his round-robin opponents on Wednesday. Safin presents
a threat there, too. ï¿½I am enjoying the sport Iï¿½ve been playing
since six,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½It is better than cleaning the streets